In Asia, qualifying for a FIFA tournament has long been regarded as a major achievement – even for the continent's best. And while preliminary competitions used to be dominated by a few traditional powers, new contenders have emerged over recent years to challenge the old order. Among these fast-developing football nations are Vietnam, who twice made history in the past year by qualifying for two FIFA competitions for the first time.
First of all, the Vietnamese stunned even their own supporters by finishing among the top four in last February’s 2016 AFC Futsal Championship to reach the 2016 FIFA Futsal World Cup Colombia. They went on to wrap up a memorable year by qualifying for the prestigious FIFA U-20 World Cup, which will be held in Korea Republic next year, with an impressive preliminary campaign that included an unexpected victory over the tournament hosts, Bahrain.
Given such unprecedented successes, it was no surprise to find Le Hung Dzung, President of Vietnamese Football Federation (VFF), glowing with satisfaction. "It is worth priding ourselves on the achievements we had in 2016," he told FIFA.com. "It reflects the VFF’s efforts to promote the game to the levels required by the AFC and FIFA. Besides, qualifying for two FIFA tournaments shows that we have allocated our investment effectively."
Despite their low profile on the international scene, Vietnam has long been known within Asia for its passion for football. Solid progress has also been made since the national league turned professional at the turn of the century. Clubs from V League 1 have made occasional appearances in the AFC Champions League while, at international level, the national team stormed through to the last eight in the 2007 AFC Asian Cup as co-hosts before winning the 2008 AFF Championship. Last year’s Futsal World Cup nonetheless represented their first appearance on the global stage.
Under Spaniard Bruno Garcia, Vietnam produced arguably the biggest surprise of the 2016 AFC Futsal Championship. After progressing to the knockout stage with victories over Chinese Taipei and Tajikistan, they overcame four-time World Cup participants and holders Japan on penalties. Vietnam then proved in Colombia that their Asian achievements had not been a flash in the pan, reaching the second round in their World Cup debut with a shock 4-2 win over Guatemala.
"To be honest, futsal was previously not too popular in Vietnam," Le reflected. "But we organised a national futsal competition back in 2007 and transformed it into a league in 2015 so that the teams could have more opportunities to play and help raise our game to international levels. We also hired experienced foreigners to coach the national team. Reaching the second round in our first World Cup made our fans proud. Now futsal is well known across our country. This in turn provides us with a golden chance to further promote the game and take it to a higher level."
Perhaps buoyed by this futsal breakthrough, Vietnam’s young footballers then went on to break new ground in the 11-a-side game at the AFC U-19 Championship. A hard-fought 2-1 victory against three-time winners Korea DPR set the tone before draws against United Arab Emirates and Iraq took them past the group phase for the first time. Tran Thanh then scored the only goal of the resultant quarter-final as they surprised everyone by qualifying for Korea Republic 2017 at the Bahrainis’ expense.
"We had competed in the Asian finals for many years but this was the first time we had reached the World Cup," added Le. "It was a real testament to our long-term development strategy, which focuses our efforts on educating and developing youth players. Now we have qualified, there is a rare chance for our youngsters to play against the world's best. Those experiences will be invaluable for their future development. If our youth players can frequently participate in these top-level competitions, they will make good progress and, as a result, our senior national team will become stronger too."
Aside from their World Cup successes, Vietnam also qualified for the recent U-16 and U-23 AFC Asian Championships. With progress evident to all across the continent, VFF General Secretary Le Hoai Ahn sought to shed light on the development schemes that have helped lay the groundwork.
"The key factors have been focusing on youth football investment and inviting top-quality technical specialists," he told FIFA.com. "We created more chances for youth players to play by adjusting the competition format in youth leagues (increasing the number of matches) and encouraged football clubs to acquire fresh talents. For the youth national teams, thanks to the advice of our coaching and technical staff, we also drafted annual plans that included organising overseas training camps."
With Korea Republic 2017 drawing near, excitement levels in Vietnam are running high. And while this might be the Southeast Asian country’s first U-20 World Cup, they are determined to ensure that it marks merely the beginning of a sustained run of success. As General Secretary Le concluded: "Going forward, we will try to help our youth teams to reach the Asian finals and our U-20 side to perform well in the World Cup. In the long run, we will also further develop our professional football league, standardise youth leagues and improve development at school and grassroots levels."